Prints Explained

An original, limited-edition, fine art print is a work of art conceived and developed by the artist for the purpose of making an edition. The artist creates an image on a matrix of suitable material for the process to be used such as a lithographic stone for litho, a copper plate for etching, et al. In collaboration with a master printer, proofs are created as the artwork develops until the artist is satisfied with the result. The artist approves the final proof (called a B.A.T.), and the edition can be printed in a quantity predetermined by the artist, using the B.A.T. proof as a standard. After printing, the edition is usually signed, numbered, and dated.

Limited-edition fine art prints are not to be confused with reproductions of existing works that are reproduced photo mechanically. These reproductions are usually posters, but sometimes called prints. Generally such prints are unsigned and not numbered, but they can appear to be signed if the signature of the artist was also reproduced photo mechanically as part of the printing plate. Most posters and museum reproductions fall into this category of commercially mass-produced prints.

Original prints are most often discussed with reference to the printing technique that was used to produce them; for instance, you will find lithographs, etchings, aquatints, and screenprints, amongst others that are available.

Printmaking techniques


Relief printing is a generic term used to describe methods in which the raised areas of the printing element are inked and printed. The most common relief printing techniques are woodcut and linocut.


Woodcut is one of the oldest and simplest forms of printmaking. Various implements (both hand tools and power tools) can be used to cut the image into a block of wood. Paper is placed over the inked block and rubbed by hand or passed through a press to transfer the ink from block to paper to create the image.

Woodcut prints and illustrations were first popularized in China in the 9th century and spread to Europe in the 14th century where they became a popular medium for the mass distribution of religious and instructive imagery. The woodcut was developed to an exceptional level of artistic achievement in Japan during the 17th-18th century, the ukiyo-e period.


The lino block consists of a thin layer of linoleum mounted on wood. This material is easily carved using simple knives and gouges. The image is then transferred to paper as with a woodcut.


A general category of printing techniques characterized by the incision of lines or images into a surface of a plate, which is usually metal. The whole plate is inked and then wiped to remove the ink from the plate's surface, leaving ink only in the incised areas. The paper is dampened so that, under pressure, it will be squeezed into the inked recesses of the plate. Thin films of ink are sometimes left on the surface of the plate to achieve tonal effects.


A metal plate is incised with a tool called a burin. Great skill is required to manipulate the burin as it is pushed at different angles and degrees of pressure to produce a variety of marks and lines. Engraving techniques were used by the Greeks, Romans and Etruscans for decorating objects but were not used for printmaking until the mid 15th century in Germany. Engraved images are comprised a multitude of crisp, fine lines. Shading is traditionally rendered by cross-hatching or similar marks.


As with engraving, this is process in which marks are made on a plate using a sharp, pointed instrument. Unlike engraving, in which small amounts of metal are completely removed as the lines are incised, drypoint is characterized by the curl of displaced metal, called the burr, which forms as the line is cut. When inked, the burr creates a distinctive velvety appearance. This technique is usually done on soft copper plates. As the edition is printed, the burr becomes flattened and less distinct. Therefore it is generally preferable to have a print with a low impression number from a drypoint edition.


This is very beautiful but time-consuming technique which was most popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. In creating a mezzotint, first the entire metal plate is roughened by marking fine lines into the plate in all directions with a rocker, making the surface receptive to ink. Printing at this stage in the process would render the entire paper black. Tones are created by burnishing or scraping into the plate, working from black back to middle values and highlights.


An intaglio process introduced in the early 1500's that uses acid to make marks in a metal plate. The plate is covered with an acid-resistant coating called a ground. The image is drawn using a sharp needle to scrape through the ground, exposing the plate. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath in which marks are made as exposed areas are eaten away. The characteristics of the marks produced depend on the tool used to draw the image, the type of ground used to coat the surface of the plate (hard or soft ground), and the length of time the plate is left in the acid bath.


Aquatint is a etching method introduced in the mid-17th century to create a more subtle tonal range than could be achieved with straight etching technique. Powdered resin is made to adhere to a metal plate; the metal that remains exposed around the tiny drops of resin is bitten in the acid bath, creating a pitted, grainy surface. These textured areas hold a thin layer of ink which prints as an area of tone. The longer the plate is left in the acid, the deeper the texture will be bitten and the darker it will print. A plate may be bitten several times for a range of tonal areas. An acid-resistant "stop-out" can be painted onto the plate to protect certain areas from being bitten in subsequent acid baths.

Spitbite Aquatint

An Intaglio method where the artist paints using strong acid, directly onto the aquatint ground of an etching plate. Depending on the amount of time the acid is left on the plate, light to dark tones can be achieved. To control the acid application, saliva, ethylene glycol, or Kodak Photoflo solution can be used. Traditionally a clean brush was coated with saliva, dipped into nitric acid and brushed onto the ground, hence the term "spitbite".


A photographic technique used in combination with etching or aquatint. The metal plate is heated and dusted with a fine rosin or aquatint ground. In a darkroom, the image is exposed from a positive transparency (usually a glass plate made from the original negative) onto a sensitized gravure carbon tissue or film. This image, in turn, is transferred to the metal plate. The plate is bathed in warm water, causing the unexposed emulsion on the carbon print to be washed away, leaving the image in relief. Ferric chloride is then applied to the plate to eat away the copper in proportion to the highlights and shadows of the gelatin relief. The finished plate is printed by hand by usual intaglio methods. This process has great fidelity to the tonal range of the original photograph.


A process invented in the late 18th century, based on the antipathy of grease and water. The image is drawn on a smooth stone or plate using pencils, crayons, tusche, grease, lacquer, or synthetic materials, or sometimes by means of a photochemical or transfer process. After the image is drawn, the stone or plate is dampened and ink is applied with a roller. The greasy image repels the water and holds the oily ink while the rest of the stone's surface does the opposite. The entire surface is treated with a solution of gum arabic and nitric acid before inking in order to enhance this effect. Printing is accomplished in a press similar to that used in intaglio processes.


A process of printing through an opening of material or cutout design.

Screenprint (Serigraph, Silkscreen)

A stencil is adhered to a material (now synthetic nylon is used instead of silk) stretched tightly over a frame. The image areas are, open fabric through which ink or paint is forced with a squeegee. Screenprints can be made onto almost any material.


The key characteristic of a monoprint or monotype is that no two prints are identical, though many of the same elements may be present. All or part of a monoprint is created from printed elements whereas a monotype image is painted directly onto a smooth plate and then transferred to paper in a press. These prints are often hand-colored after they are printed.


A direct method for hand coloring through a stencil. The stencil itself is usually knife-cut from thin-coated paper, paperboard, plastic, or metal. A stencil and stencil-brush may be used to make multicolor prints or for tinting black and white prints.

Digital Prints

Iris prints are created by printing computer-generated images on a large scale ink jet printer manufactured by IRIS. The ink is dispersed by a sophisticated print head in a fine mist of minute droplets in order to deliver a continuous tone image. Iris prints can be printed using highly saturated, archival, water-based inks on a wide range of materials, from traditional fine art papers to fabric and wood veneers.

Other printers can be used and are also computer generated and realized. Some printers may use pigment-based archival inks rather than water-based inks. In addition to the materials that can be printed on with Iris printers, some printers can accommodate rigid materials such as copper plates or cardboard.

Paper Types

Paper is one of the most important elements in printmaking. The choice of paper for an artist's image is crucial to the final effect. To be archival, it is imperative that the paper be pH neutral, or “acid-free”.

Paper was invented in China in the first century. It spread westward, arriving in Spain through Arab influence, and eastward to Japan and Korea. The basic raw materials are cotton, linen rags, and barks beaten into fibers. The fibers are mixed with water and poured into a vat. A special mould is dipped into the vat and pulled out. The newly formed sheet of paper is pressed and dried. Somewhat different methods evolved in the East and West which accounts for the wide variety of Western and Japanese papers.

Commercial methods have been developed to process wood fiber into paper by cooking wood chips with steam and chemicals under high temperature and pressure to remove impurities, which deteriorate rapidly on exposure to light and air. Wood fiber papers are not archival, though methods have been developed to make them more appropriate for artists’ use.

In addition to the materials used in its manufacture, there are several other characteristics distinguishing different types of paper. Papers come in a variety of weights, or thicknesses. The surface of the paper can be either smooth or rough, depending on how it is pressed. Hot-pressed paper has a much smoother surface than cold-pressed paper; the smoother the surface, the less a paper will “grip” the media applied to it and the less the marks will bleed. Some papers are sized; that is, they are treated with a moisture-resistant substance to keep the paper from absorbing too much water and pigment and keep the colors vibrant and true.

Print Inscriptions

Most often the artist's signature is placed at the bottom of the print along with the impression number. This number is expressed by means of a fraction along with the date of publication. The denominator equals the total number of prints in the edition; the numerator represents the specific number within the total edition. For example, 1/35 would indicate that the total number of the prints in the edition is 35 and this particular print is the first impression. This may be altered with the Artist, with the signiture and impression number being reflected on the back of the work, although not traditional.


Proofs are also signed.

AP - Artist's Proof

A certain percentage of prints are reserved for the artist's personal use and are usually identical to the edition prints.

TP - Trial Proof

Proofs showing variations in the image as the artist developed the print.

CTP - Colour Trial Proof

Proofs showing variations in colours.

RTP - Right to Print or, Bon a Tirer (BAT)

The first proof that meets the artist's standards for the entire edition. It is used as a guide against which each print in the edition is compared as it is printed.

PP - Printers Proof

Proofs reserved for the printers with whom the artist collaborated. These usually resemble the editioned prints.

SP - Special Proof

Proofs such as presentation proofs carrying a dedication by the artist.

A - Archive Copy

An impression identical to the edition, which is reserved for the archives of the printer, print publisher, and/or a specified institution such as a museum.

C - Cancellation Proof

An impression taken from one of the printing elements that has been effaced to indicate that no further impressions can be pulled.

HC - Hors de Commerce

An impression pulled outside the edition for the personal use of the publisher or artist, usually created in lieu of artist's proofs.

WP - Work Proof

A proof on which the artist has drawn, painted or collaged. This proof is used as a reference of changes the artist wishes to make in an edition or to record directions the artist might pursue in the future.

Care of Paper

Prints should only be handled with clean hands or paper tabs. The paper should be kept flat, grasped by the thumb and fingers at opposite edges or corners in a way that will not cause the paper to buckle. Loose prints should never be rolled for prolonged storage. Prints rolled in tubes for mailing should be flattened as soon as possible. Unframed prints should be stored with archival interleaving (such as glassine) in metal storage cabinets or special solander boxes. Prints should never be in direct contact with paper or paper products with an acid content such as cardboard or newsprint.


Prints should be mounted only on archival rag backing board with neutral pH. Special archival tapes (hinges) and adhesives should be used for mounting. The print should never be placed in direct contact with glass or Plexiglas.

Environmental Conditions

The humidity of the area where the print is to be displayed or stored should be considered. High humidity may promote the growth of mold and cause foxing, small dark spots of discoloration. If humidity is too low, the paper may become brittle. Significant changes from low to high humidity can cause paper to buckle as the paper expands and contracts. Dust and pollution affect all works of art.

Strong light has serious effects on prints. Ultraviolet light is the most damaging and may cause colors to change or fade. Placing framed prints away from direct or strong indirect light and using UF3 Plexiglas to filter out harmful rays will greatly reduce damage.

Reference Guide
Jim Dine Prints 1985-2000 A Catalogue Raisonne and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Details about Print Making Techniques, have been used.


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